Tuesdays With Wilcockson #7
Why Boulder is the home of modern American cycling
Last week, I was asked to sit on the advisory board of the U. S. Cycling Monument — which will be a memorial to the sport in this country. Its goal is to raise funds to build the monument, a futuristic metal-and-stone sculpture, in the Boulder, Colorado, park that is regarded as the spiritual home of modern American cycling.
North Boulder Park is where a young Davis Phinney watched bike racing for the first time, fell in love with the sport, and later became America’s most-winning sprinter ever. It’s where a young Greg LeMond was crowned overall winner of the Coors International Bicycle Classic before he became the first American to win the Tour de France. And it’s in the center of the city where the foundations were laid for today’s major U.S. stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California and Colorado’s U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge.
The story began in the early-1970s when a 19-year-old Mo Siegel founded a small herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, to supply local health food stores. Siegel and his hippie friends, who handpicked herbs and wild berries for their teas, were environmentalists, and after their nascent business passed a million dollars in sales, Siegel decided he wanted to generate awareness of cycling’s environmental benefits (and also publicize the company’s best-selling tea, Red Zinger), by organizing a bike race.
The Red Zinger Classic started out as a modest two-day, three-stage event, with a short time trial, a hilly road race through Colorado’s Front Range, and a criterium in North Boulder Park. It had a tiny budget of $50,000 but heaps of enthusiasm from Siegel’s Boulder employees and local volunteers. The inaugural edition, in 1975, was the one that attracted Phinney to the sport. It did the same two years later for Michael Aisner, a journalism student at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, who was moonlighting as a DJ for a Denver radio station and stumbled into a career as a promoter. It happened like this….
When Aisner saw a public service ad by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 1976, asking for signatures to stop the killing of baby seals in Canada, he talked about it on his Denver radio show and garnered some 20,000 names for the petition. Impressed, the IFAW offered him a marketing job, and Aisner organized a trip by French movie-star campaigners Yvette Mimieux and Brigitte Bardot to witness the seal hunt in February 1977.
The subsequent story in Time magazine was read by Siegel, who contacted Aisner and invited him to lunch. “At the end of the lunch,” Aisner recalled, “Mo said, ‘So, you’re obviously good at PR. Would you mind doing PR for the bike race?’ I’d never even seen one before, but … I’m a curious guy, so I said, ‘I may as well do it.’”
Aisner produced documentaries of the race in his three-year stint as PR director, getting the film shown as a B-feature in cinemas all over the West. By 1978, the Zinger had expanded to seven stages, but the higher budget and extra working hours it now demanded became too much for the tea company. As a result, Siegel sold the event for one dollar to Aisner, who obtained the Adolph Coors Company as title sponsor and re-launched it in 1980 as the Coors International Bicycle Classic, adding stages in the Colorado ski resorts of Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, and eventually extending it to California and even Hawaii over its two-week span.
The Coors, as it became known, had a glorious nine-year run, with the peak coming in the mid-1980s. Discussing those races, two-time Coors winner Dale Stetina told me, “I loved the Coors Classic because often, in the later days, the European pros would come over. They thought, because it was the U.S., they wouldn’t have a problem and it would be a cakewalk. They would come over, confident to race us at altitude on our home turf, and we would usually stomp ’em to pieces.”
That didn’t happen in 1985-86, when five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault came to Colorado with his La Vie Claire team. The French star helped teammate LeMond win the Coors in ’85 and won it himself the following year. Reporting the race as the editor of a European-based cycling magazine, I became so intrigued with the event and enraptured by Boulder that I moved to the city in 1987.
The 1985 race began in San Francisco, with a prologue up Telegraph Hill (which the Amgen Tour adopted two decades later) and a criterium on Fisherman’s Wharf. Everyone was impressed by the size of the California crowds — but they were just as big for the finale in North Boulder Park. That year, the last day’s circuit was extended from a short criterium loop to a hilly circuit of 1.65 miles, and Canadian star Steve Bauer won the stage with a remarkable solo break over the final 11 laps. At the following year’s race, just prior to the ’86 world championships in nearby Colorado Springs, the Boulder stage was again taken in a solo break, this time by local man Ron Kiefel. But my lasting memory of that day was Italian classics star Moreno Argentin making a searing, mid-race attack on the hill up Balsam to Fourth Street. Two weeks later, Argentin won the worlds.
Besides the Boulder-raised Phinney and Denver-born Kiefel, Boulder soon saw other pro cyclists move to the area, attracted by the mountain terrain, 5,430-foot elevation (with local roads climbing to 9,500 feet) and dry weather (with sunshine 300 days a year). The 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten has a house at the foot of the Flatirons, the iconic rock outcroppings above the city, as does today’s top U.S. climber Tom Danielson. Danielson’s Garmin-Barracuda teammate Peter Stetina was born here after his dad, Dale Stetina, moved to Boulder.
“It was natural to come and settle here as soon as I stopped racing,” Dale Stetina told me. “In fact, when I first came to Boulder and looked up at the Flatirons and the mountains, I said I feel like I’m home. Being able to spend hours riding up in the mountains and down the canyons next to beautiful mountain streams, enjoying good weather, that’s as close to Nirvana, I guess, as I would get as a cycling enthusiast.”
Besides the athletes, some of the people who worked on the Coors Classic have remained in the sport. They include Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports, which today organizes U.S. cycling’s major stage races in California, Utah and Colorado.
Over the past four decades, a whole cycling culture has taken root in Boulder. Its bike-race-related reputation and the number of cyclists settling here are the reasons that it now has an indoor velodrome, a custom-built cyclocross /mountain bike park and more than 300 miles of dedicated bike routes. It’s the home of advocacy groups such as Bikes Belong, Growth Cycle and the International Mountain Bicycling Association. And among the business that have settled here are CatEye, Dean Titanium Bicycles, Dual Eyewear, Optibike, Panache Cyclewear, Pearl Izumi, Recofit Compression, Slipstream Sports (owner of UCI ProTeam Garmin-Barracuda), TrainingPeaks, Velo magazine, VeloPress books and Vredestein tires.
A 2011 survey estimated that bike shops and associated business in the city accounted for more than 300 jobs and sales north of $50 million; but Boulder’s influence on American cycling is immeasurable in terms of prestige and legacy. Few would argue about its status as the country’s premier bike-racing community.
The city has donated a site in North Boulder Park for the U. S. Cycling Monument, which to date has raised about 25 percent of the $215,000 needed to build the structure. The symbolic sculpture, designed by local artist Kimmerjae Johnson, will include a 50-foot-long spiraling aluminum ribbon (which represents the racers and the looping course) linking a high, monolithic sandstone archway with a monumental element to be known as the Talking Stone.
Appropriate plantings around the monument will symbolize the waves of spectators that once packed the park’s criterium circuit. Later this year, the Boulder fans should be lining the climb up past the Flatirons for the defining stage of Colorado’s new race, the Pro Challenge. And should the fundraising be successful, Boulder’s grand monument to cycling in America will be in place.
To be part of the U. S. Cycling Monument go here.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International